Kiss of Death

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

For some reason, this movie went unseen by me until our current NoirFest. It's mainly famous for Richard Widmark's character pushing an old lady in a wheelchair down a long flight of stairs to her demise, then giggling like a maniac. Which he is, of course.

Reader, that was a relatively underplayed scene from Widmark. He's even more unhinged elsewhere in the movie. I see he got an Oscar nomination, so…

But the "hero" is Victor Mature, playing Nick. Who gets caught after a jewel heist, but refuses to squeal on his partners in crime, so is sent up for hard time. But he gets disillusioned by the whole no-honor-among-thieves thing: his pals promised they would take care of his wife and kids. Instead, she's destitute, commits suicide, and the kids go to an orphanage.

So Nick contacts prosecutor Brian Donlevy, says OK, I'll squeal. And gets out. And takes up with Nettie, a previous babysitter for his kids. Can they start a new life together after Nick rats out his pals? No spoilers here, but I note that the movie's ending was originally different. (Don't look at that unless you've already seen the movie… oops, too late.)

If they gave out a Biggest Lips Oscar, Mature would win every year.

Thieves' Highway

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Still on our old film noir kick from Netflix's DVD service. Fun stuff! The director, Jules Dassin, was blacklisted soon after this 1949 movie was released, for being a full-fledged Communist back in the 1930s, when that was cool. He apparently bailed on the CPUSA in response to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, but his stint was enough for the movie studios to dump him. (He went off to Europe, and made some pretty famous movies there. And married Melina Mercouri!)

One IMDB reviewer says this movie "is really an expose of the rotten heart of capitalism". Certainly it's kind of a downer.

Our hero, Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), is back from a post-WWII tour of exotic Asia, bearing gifts for his folks and sweetie, Polly. But one of those gifts turns out to be an utter faux pas: fancy slippers for Dad. Because—surprise!—Dad has no feet! It turns out that on one of his trucking runs bringing produce to the San Francisco market he ran afoul of crooked dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). And Figlia's way of dealing with obstreperous truckers is to rob and maim them.

So Nick plots vengeance. Kind of indirectly, it seems to me. He hooks up with his dad's old partner, Ed. They wangle an extra truck, deal with some local Polish farmers for a load of Golden Delicious apples, and they head off to Frisco. Every step of the way is loaded with complications and danger. (Not helping: Ed's only marginally honest, trying to stiff the farmers on the price once the trucks are loaded. Capitalism!)

Once in San Francisco, Nick drives a hard bargain with Figlia, which causes Figlia to complicate Nick's life with a hot heart-of-gold hooker, Rica. And then Polly shows up. And Nick gets ripped off by Figlia's thugs. And the partner's truck, held together with spit and baling wire,….

Well, eventually things work out, Nick and Rica go off into the sunset, San Francisco gets its apples, and capitalism is saved!

Mildred Pierce

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I read the James M. Cain novel long ago, but somehow never got around to seeing this 1945 movie. Joan Crawford, in the titular role, won the Oscar for Best actress. The movie also was nominated for five other Oscars, including Best Picture. I wasn't that impressed, because (frankly) it's kind of a chick flick. (Mrs. Salad liked it a lot.)

It opens with Mildred Pierce's current husband, Monte, getting filled full of lead in a swanky Santa Monica beach house. Whodunnit? Mildred's on the scene, and tries to frame her slimy business partner, Wally, for the deed. The cops aren't fooled by that, but they seem convinced the actual murderer was Mildred Pierce's first husband, Bert. Mildred can't have that: she confesses herself. But is she lying to protect Bert, or someone else? Is she the kind of person who'd do such a thing?

Well, yes. All that happens in the first few minutes, and most of the rest of the movie is flashbacks to how Mildred found herself in this pickle. Starting way back to when she was a mere housewife, struggling to make ends meet, saddled with that sad sack loser, Bert. And two young daughters, one good, one… well, not so good.

The movie chronicles Mildred's rise against the odds. In a blink of an eye, she's a restaurant tycoon, feeding most of Southern California. But her personal life is a mess, because she can't seem to shake some of her most dysfunctional relationships. Eventually…

Check out Eve Arden and (uncredited!) Butterfly McQueen in comic relief roles.

So it's very watchable, but easy to make fun of. They don't make movies, or shoulder pads, like that any more.

Witness for the Prosecution

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I thought I'd seen this 1957 monochrome drama before, but after watching it, I'm pretty sure not.

It's adapted from an Agatha Christie play, and directed by Billy Wilder. Charles Laughton plays a barrister in ill health who (against the wishes of his nurse, Elsa Lanchester) takes on the defense of Tyrone Power, accused of murdering the rich dowager who left him a pile of money in her will.

Tyrone is married to Marlene Dietrich. Or is he? Everybody's kind of shocked when she is called as a (drumroll) Witness for the Prosecution.

So it's pretty good, although there's a lot of scenery-chewing acting from Marlene and Tyrone. Comic relief is provided via the banter between Laughton and Lanchester which is hilarious.

Also slightly amazing is Ian Wolfe, who plays Charles Laughton's secretary. According to IMDB, he was born in 1896 which would have made him about 60 here. Or you might remember him from a couple of Star Trek episodes when he was in his early 70s. Or (if you're really lucky) you watched him in a small recurring role on WKRP in Cincinnati, Mother Carlson's uppity butler Hirsch; he was in his mid-80s there.

Or any one of a zillion other things. He kept working, his last role in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy movie in 1990, when he would have been about 94 years young.

And in all those roles, he looks pretty much the same. I suppose he was young once. Maybe I'll rent The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) to test that theory.

Hunter Killer

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I was in the mood for a good sub movie. This is not a good sub movie.

The movie opens with a US hunter-killer sub stalking a Russian sub in the Barents Sea, just off the Russian northern coast. Both are ruthlessly blown up! The USS Arkansas, under the command of new captain King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is sent to surreptitiously investigate. Meanwhile a SEAL team is sent to the area to investigate strange goings on at the nearby Russian Navy base. Before you can say "I wish Sean Connery were in this movie", a nefarious plot is revealed: a no-goodnik wants to depose the nice-guy Russian president and (probably) start a war with the US. Or something. I'm pretty sure I dozed off while the plan was described.

The SEALs and the sub crew engage in some major operations to rescue the Nice Russian, foil the plot, all while avoiding escalating the violence to all-out war. Lots of shooting, explosions, even fisticuffs; you'd be surprised at how boring this can be.

Gary Oldman is wasted as a hotheaded Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Linda Cardellini brings her two X chromosomes to try to calm him down.

Looks as if they spent a lot of money on the special effects and sets, but … you gotta do more than that.

Bad Education

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

According to IMDB, this movie played a few film festivals in 2019, then was dumped right onto HBO in April of this year. Despite having a big star in the lead, Hugh Jackman. But they eventually made a DVD version, and it showed up at Netflix, so:

Hugh plays Frank Tassone, superintendent of the Roslyn public school system out on Long Island. As the movie opens, he's being feted for leading the high school to the #4 position on the Wall Street Journal's list of the best in the entire country! Woot! Especially happy about that are the local real estate folks, who note the effect on property values. (Ray Romano plays a real estate guy who's also on the school board.)

And as the movie opens, you kind of get it: Frank seems to know every single one of the students under his wing, and cares deeply about their plans and goals. And he even recognizes a student from long past when he's in a Las Vegas bar—that turns out to have an unexpected plot development, but never mind that now.

But little cracks start to appear in the perfect edifice. The district's business manager, played by Allison Janney, encourages a relative, another district employee, to put a Christmas-present Xbox on the district credit card. She also spends a few thou at Macy's. And a different relative hops from hardware store to hardware store, stocking up on home improvement items on the school district dime.

And eventually it all falls apart, despite the efforts of Tassone and the school board to keep a lid on the blossoming scandal. Thanks to a plucky student journalist!

Kudos to the filmmakers for tackling a sacred cow, the government school system. The miscreants are caught because they're greedy and sloppy. Any sentient being has to ask: what about the folks who aren't caught?

The end of the movie reveals a further outrage, by the way: even after the embezzlement revelation, Tassone received a $173,495.04/year pension. Even while he was in prison. This is New York, baby. And the biggest scandals are what's legal.

Last Modified 2020-11-28 5:36 AM EST

Inside Llewyn Davis

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

"Coen Brothers" attached to a movie usually makes it an automatic must-watch for me. But this 2013 movie slipped through some cracks, and I saw it sitting there on Amazon Prime, so… It's not bad, not their best. But definitely contains one of the Best Movie Quotes of All Time: "Where's his scrotum, Llewyn? Where's his scrotum?!"

Llewyn is on his own personal odyssey, although he doesn't seem to know where he's going. He's a denizen of the early-60's folk music scene in Greenwich Village, and it's a tough go when you're low on money, principles, and ambition. (Everybody seems to agree that he's got talent, though.) Oh, and he's also homeless, crashing on couches and floors. In one of those apartments he manages to lose a friend's cat, which escapes out of a window he's opened. This is a major plot driver.

There's a miserable side trip to Chicago, to follow up on a possible professional opportunity. It doesn't work out. There's his possible impregnation of a friend's fiance; although she's not sure it's his, she wants an abortion just in case it might be.

And he gets beat up a couple times. Or is it just once?

The Good Liar

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I've been picking through the DVD selections at Netflix, looking for movies we missed queueing up when they first became available. Sometimes we pick a winner, like this one: a nice, nasty little crime drama. Needless to say: Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen ensure the acting will be first-rate. And everything else is pretty good too.

McKellen plays a ruthless con artist named Gandalf   Magneto   Roy. He and his buddy Vincent (Jim Carter, aka Downton Abbey butler Carson) play classic investment scams on people with a lot of money, who want to have even more money.

Ms. Mirren plays Betty, shaping up to be Roy's newest patsy. They're set up via a computer dating site, where both of them aren't entirely honest about their profiles. Never mind, because Betty's a lonely widow, and succumbs to Roy's polished charms. No sex, please, we're British. But the objections of Betty's skeptical grandson are ignored, and Roy moves into Betty's modest, boring beige home. Soon enough the scam appears…

Will Ray succeed in duping Betty? No spoilers here, but (let's face it) it would be a pretty uninteresting movie if his plan goes off flawlessly. What actually develops is unexpected, shocking, … well, check it out. I didn't see it coming.

Hotel Mumbai

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

It may be that I've seen more movies with Dev Patel over the past few years than movies with any other actor. How would I check that? Hm.

The movie is based on true events: back in 2008, ten Islamist terrorists smuggled themselves into Mumbai and proceeded to murder people. When it was all over, four days later, 166 people had been killed. (Also nine out of the ten terrorists.)

It's much like an action movie, except there's no Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford to crawl around in ductwork to save the innocent civilians. It's just innocent civilians, woefully unarmed against the automatic rifles and grenades of the villains. And (worse) Mumbai had no SWAT team on hand to effectively respond to the invasion; the local cops are brave, but out-weaponed.

The attack was on a number of Mumbai locales, but the movie concentrates on the Taj Hotel, a glamorous leftover from the days of the Raj. Dev Patel is a waiter in the hotel's gourmet restaurant, presided over by a strict head chef. Ironically, he's nearly sent home for forgetting to wear his nice shoes to work; his boss takes pity on him, lends him his own shoes. And so he's on hand for all the carnage.

The movie (understandably) focuses on a few guests: a rich couple, their nanny, their infant son, a Russian ex-Spetznaz officer, a cowardly young man who puts his girlfriend in danger. Not all of them make it to the end of the movie.

It's pretty harrowing, the violence is unglamorized and brutal. The simple heroism of everyday people is the primary theme.

The Best of Enemies

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A decent earnest movie from 2019, probably intended as Oscar bait. Although (checking IMDB) that didn't catch on.

It's "based on actual events" from 1971. When Durham, North Carolina was roiled by racial tension, menaced by Klansmen. The two main characters are white male Klan Cyclops C.P. Ellis (played by Sam Rockwell) and black female rabble-rousing activist Ann Atwater (played by Taraji P. Henson). A fire in the local black school renders it mostly unusable. The obvious solution is to stick the black kids in with the white kids, but that's steadfastly opposed by most of the local whites. The powers that be decide to resolve things via a charrette, which is basically a scrum where days of intense discussion and contention are supposed to come up with a solution.

Which seems unlikely. But you can see what's coming from the very title of the movie: Ann and C.P. develop a grudging respect, come to understand each other's point of view, and… well, you could probably write the heartwarming outcome yourself.

Both Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson are excellent. I think the movie deserved an Oscar nomination for makeup, because Ms. Henson is a beauty, and her character (wonderful woman she is) is not: she's older, seriously overweight, not particularly attractive.

I'm wondering (however) how accurate the film's portrait of 1971 Durham, NC is. There are a few elite rich folk, but everyone else, black and white, is working class or below. Mostly the town is portrayed as dingy, dirty, and poor.

You know what's in Durham? Duke University. IBM. Do all those professors, programmers, managers, and well-paid administrators commute in from out of town? Maybe in 1971?